A decade ago I attended a Memorial Mass for a woman friend of mine who ran a Catholic Worker house in Philadelphia. Karen was involved in the Roman Catholic women priest movement. Her progressive views included support for ‘open’ liturgies (celebrated at the Catholic Worker house) which allowed celebrants other than priests to officiate. She was a radical, feminist Catholic, as were most of the people at her memorial service.
This fact became evident to me at the luncheon following the service when I was seated beside a well groomed fifty something woman in a plaid skirt and sweater who introduced herself as a Sister of Saint Joseph. The Sisters of St. Joseph were among the first orders of Catholic nuns to ditch their religious habit after Vatican II.
During the luncheon I explained to the well coiffed (and perfumed) Sister that I had fond memories of Saint Joe nuns in their unique box veils that made them resemble Orthodox patriarchs. I also told her that what I found most ironic was that in the days before Vatican II, Saint Joe nuns were noted for their strictness and cruelty (pinching the earlobes of students; using large wooden rulers as “swords” to discipline unruly boys), whereas after Vatican II almost all of them, sans their box veils and weighty crucifixes, had as their chrism social justice issues (Nuns on the Bus), etc.
I took things a step further with the Saint Joe nun when I said, “Today, it seems your Order is all about using your rulers on society.”
Fast forward to 2022 and to a Catholic landscape practically devoid of nuns in traditional habits except for cloistered women squirreled away in obscure convents. The sad fact is, contemplative orders of nuns were almost liquated after Vatican, but even the few “conservative” monasteries that survived became saddled with the new Mass and the revised, politically correct breviary, with its psalms that would bring joy to fans of the Southern Poverty Law Project.
In Philadelphia, one can visit the Convent of Divine Love where the cloistered Holy Adoration Sisters or ‘Pink Sisters’ reside. The nuns’ chapel with its grill work and rood screen is an impressive sight, as are the nuns themselves. These human relics of a lost era– nuns not in pant suits who blabber about voting rights– never fail to capture the imaginations of a fascinated public. The sight of a traditional nun in public always generates a buzz. In a supermarket near my home whenever an order of Eastern Rite Ukrainian nuns comes in to shop, shoppers look for any excuse to go up to them and say, “Finally, real nuns!”
Pope Francis, a liturgical modernist, has made no secret of his dislike for tradition in the Roman Rite despite his professed admiration for the (always traditional) Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Francis’ goal is the stripping down of the Roman Rite to a Bauhaus like austerity.
Francis, the iconoclast, is well on his way to relegating the Traditional Latin Mass to an archival footnote in Church history, and now it seems he has taken aim at a little congregation of traditionalist nuns in Fairfield, Pennsylvania.
The Discalced Carmelites Sisters of Fairfield were established in 2018, an outgrowth of a Carmel convent in Nebraska. The Carmelites were founded by Teresa of Avila (1515-82), the only woman to be declared a ‘Doctor of the Church.’ Carmelite convents are designed to be small (convents are not to exceed 30 nuns). The Fairfield convent currently has 25 nuns with two additional women scheduled to enter. Unlike the nearly empty Sisters of Saint Joseph convents throughout the nation (religious orders of nuns who wear secular dress are not gaining new members), the attraction of Fairfield Carmelites and other traditionalist communities continues to mystify—and anger– the defenders of modernism.
The Fairfield community is almost ‘Amish’ in its rigorous lifestyle. There is no indoor heating and plumbing, no air conditioning or electricity. The nuns, who wear traditional habits, pray 8 hours a day, sleep 5 ½ hours a night, attend the Traditional Latin Mass, eat no meat and practice intense fasting. The Carmelite tradition is one of autonomy, a 500 year old tradition established by St. Teresa of Avila.
Enter Pope Francis, who in 2016 authored a document, Vultum Dei quaerere, a design plan to overhaul cloistered women’s communities. Francis’ revolutionary screed was followed by 2018 document released by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, titled Cor Orans (‘praying heart’), which would give control of a monastery to a religious federation outside the community. Cor Orans grants Vatican henchmen generous oversight into the daily life of the Carmelites, which of course would spell doom for the 25 nuns (soon to be 27) and their Traditionalist lifestyle.
The ‘mainstreaming’ aspects of a federation conjures a Saint Joe nun mentality—social justice seminars, feminist haircuts in exchange for religious habits, minimal to zero fasts, no Latin Mass, 8 hours of prayer cut down to one hour in a rehabbed convent chapel (out with the grill and fancy altar; in with a butcher block table altar.)
“The global Church’s centuries of tradition are not akin to a container for preserved objects,” Francis has stated. As for traditionalist Catholics, he considers them mere pantywaists whose only purpose is to “safeguard the ashes of the past.”
Before the release of Cor Orans, The Remnant quoted one fully professed Carmelite nun and a senior member of the monastery’s council.
“The Cor Orans document is the death-knell of Carmel. It signals the end of the contemplative monastic life. Not only does it destroy the autonomy of the Monasteries, something Our Holy Mother St. Teresa was extremely insistent about, but it also removes the Superior, dissolves her authority and power…”
Last year the Fairfield convent became the object of an Apostolic Visitation from Rome. According to LifeSiteNews, a Visitation consists of interviews of each sister and a detailed scrutiny of the Nuns’ daily life. It includes an evaluation of their application of the Carmelite charism and their monastic customs.
Three “Apostolic” visitors spent a few days at the Fairfield convent, after which they assured the nuns that they were living a very good life, that all was in order and they had nothing to worry about.
How many lies are hidden beneath smiley faces, behind warm handshakes and a hug? The devil clothed as an angel!
In 2012, when the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI announced that several orders of liberal activist nuns like the Sisters of Social Service (whose charism includes gender matters, poverty and the ordination of women) would be receiving an Apostolic Visitation because of “serious doctrinal problems,” the legacy media went berserk. People accused Benedict XVI of conducting an Inquisition and branded him a draconian medievalist and a Nazi. In the end, the American liberal nuns (in feminist haircuts) got a pass to continue their work.
Compare Benedict XVI’s graciousness towards these liberal nuns to the current Vatican ruling for the Fairfield Carmelites under Jorge of the Pachamamas.
The Fairfield convent was given one year to decide whether to join the federation of activist nuns or suffer the consequences. The consequences, of course, could mean the closure of the convent.
If the convent opts to join the federation, the Vatican will take control of the financial assets of the nuns and their properties. All of this is a form of persecution because many in Rome believe that contemplative orders serve no purpose in the Church anymore. Many prelates want to liquidate the convent’s assets and give the money to the poor.
Hilary White of One Peter asks,
Why the Fairfield Carmel? Obviously because they are successful. But most especially that they are successful as traditionalists. They have grown and prospered and are building their beautiful stone monastery. They are popular and have immense support from the laity. All this while very firmly rejecting the Modernist “reforms” of religious life and liturgy, that in Rome are considered the litmus test for acceptance by the contemporary Church. All of this put together is virtually a death sentence in the current Vatican.
The attack on the Fairfield convent has the support of the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Nelson Perez, who happens to be a friend of Pope Francis. Perez is a company man, an easy going modernist who banned kneeling at Mass in the Diocese of Cleveland when he was Bishop there. LifeSite News reported that Nelson J. Perez has been telling his brother bishops in the USCCB that “the nuns in Valparaiso, Nebraska and Fairfield are a cult.”
And there you have it: A cult. What was once normal Catholic life in the 1950s and for hundreds of years throughout history is now being categorized as disordered.
Archbishop Perez has kept a low profile in Philadelphia since his installation in 2020. He has proven to be a quiet presence in the city, practically a non-entity in terms of newsworthy comments although in April 2021, he arranged a virtual event called Journey of Hope in which he featured several nuns in feminist haircuts, the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and James Martin, editor of America Magazine. The event drew some protests outside the city’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
As for the Fairfield Carmelites, they were told that by no means will they receive a dispensation from the Cor Orans document, something they were hoping and praying for.
Cults must be squashed, after all, so that the New Order can be Triumphant.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Philadelphia Architecture (2005); Literary Philadelphia and Philadelphia Mansions: Stories and Characters Behind the Walls.